Writing the Script for Your Next Act

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A report on retirement by Claudia Dreifus for the New York Times tells the story of a Haitian-American doctor turned historian.

. . .

Despite the caveats, a small but significant cohort of older Americans is experimenting with variations of a self-designed retirement.

According to a 2015 census study, 8 percent of Americans over 65 are full-time workers. Another 12 percent work part time.

Some do it because of financial need. Others find themselves liberated by their new pension checks, which they use to underwrite a redesigned work life.

Joel Dreyfuss, a 71-year-old Haitian-American journalist and editor, had long sought to write a book about his family’s 300-year involvement with Haiti’s history.

Mr. Dreyfuss (who is not a known relation to this writer) was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Though the family is prominent there, he was aware of only fragments of his back story.

“I knew that my Jewish grandfather, Emmanuel Dreyfuss, was born in France and immigrated to Haiti in 1893,” Mr. Dreyfuss said. “My grandfather was taciturn. He didn’t tell the kids much about the past.”

Over the years, Mr. Dreyfuss interviewed relatives and collected bits and pieces of family lore. However, intense career demands — he was at various moments the top editor at publications like InformationWeek, PC Magazine and Black Enterprise — kept him from the concentrated research such a book required.

An epiphany came in September 2011, while Mr. Dreyfuss was serving as managing editor of The Root, an online news site that covers black culture, and his 66th birthday rolled round. Suddenly, he realized, “the clock was ticking, and that there were things I still wanted to do — like the book.”

In that moment, he decided to gather up his savings and retire.

By February 2012, Mr. Dreyfuss and his wife, Veronica Pollard, had moved to Paris, where many key documents of Haitian history are stored. (The flat they purchased, in the Parc Monceau district, was in the very building where the author Graham Greene had once lived.)

The last few years have proved a mix of pleasant strolls, fine dining and historical research. “What I do now is a lot like journalism,” Mr. Dreyfuss said. “You’re tracking down records, cross-referencing them, figuring out the story behind the numbers.”

On the whole, he said, his time has been productive. “I’ve learned of a colonial ancestor who I’ve traced back to the early 1700s,” Mr. Dreyfuss said. “His grandson was the only white signer of the Haitian Declaration of Independence in 1804. I have one or more African ancestors. With one, I found a document from the 1770s saying he was born in Benin and sold into slavery in Haiti.”

Last winter, Mr. Dreyfuss finished a first draft of the still-untitled work. In it, he shows how his family’s multicultural story is linked to the larger story of the New World; he expects to send a final version to his literary agent by New Year’s Day.

“I couldn’t have done it,” Mr. Dreyfuss said, “if I hadn’t retired, or rather, semiretired.”

Similarly, Michael Gerrard, the faculty director of Columbia University Law School’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, isn’t quite sure he can be defined as retired.

“This is the furthest thing from retirement,” Mr. Gerrard, 65, said with a laugh. “In the years since I’ve ‘retired,’ I’ve produced five books on climate change.”

For 14 years, Mr. Gerrard was a partner in the New York office of the Washington law firm Arnold & Porter (recently renamed Arnold & Porter Kaye Scholer). He headed the firm’s New York environmental practice, where he still works one day a week.

When, in 2008, David Schizer, who was at the time the dean of Columbia Law School, invited Mr. Gerrard to jump-start what would become the Sabin Center, he opted for an early retirement.

Back then, he was 57 and, by his own description, “nowhere near retirement.” And, he said, his law firm “wasn’t thrilled.”

But Mr. Gerrard said he “felt almost a duty” to make the move because “climate change is an existential threat. There are legal tools that can be deployed to fight it. I wanted to train students and lawyers how to use them.”

From his university post, he has a platform to do some of that fighting himself. For instance, as director of the Sabin Center, Mr. Gerrard serves as an adviser to the government of the Marshall Islands, the Pacific nation that could disappear because of rising sea levels.

Mr. Gerrard advised its delegation during the negotiations at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris. “There was some controversy on whether countries damaged by climate change could get compensation from damagers,” he said. “We beat back some potentially bad language.”

Mr. Gerrard admits that taking early retirement was “an unusual move. A lot of people thought I was crazy. But, I’d done very well financially. The kids were out of college. Columbia’s pay is fine, and I get to do some very interesting things. Last year, I went to a meeting with the pope!”

And there’s a bonus: “I don’t have to fill out a time sheet every day, which I had done for 30 years.”

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